2005's Where The Truth Lies was supposed to be Atom Egoyan's The Elephant Man, The Dead Zone or Basic Instinct, a cinematic breakthrough where a beloved cult weirdo makes nice with the Hollywood mainstream and makes his corporate masters great gobs of cash in the process. Instead it sunk like a stone, dying a quick death at the box-office (that NC-17 sure didn't help) and coming up empty at Academy Awards time, despite the stunt casting of Kevin Bacon (a man with the least Kosher name this side of silent screen icon Gentile T. McGoy) as a Jerry Lewis doppelganger with the eizen flaven and the nice laaadyyyyy!
The project united strange bedfellows. It was based on a novel by Rupert Holmes, a singer turned playwright and novelist best known for the musical The Mystery Of Irwin Drood and the song "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)." In the course of my research, I learned some interesting things about Mr. Holmes. I learned, for example, that he loves piña coladas and getting caught in the rain. My research also indicates that he is not into health food but is into champagne. Lastly, I learned that Mr. Holmes is intrigued by women who have half a brain, share his love of piña coladas and getting caught in the rain and also enjoy making love at midnight, in the dunes of the cape. Who needs Wikipedia when musicians foolishly reveal all through their lyrics?
Quirky Canadian iconoclast Atom Egoyan, of Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter fame, adapts Holmes' novel and directs while Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth play characters based rather overtly on Martin & Lewis, though there's a great deal of Peter Lawford in Firth's performance as well. Casting a famous goy like Bacon as Jerry Lewis would seem to be a recipe for disaster, but Bacon is surprisingly convincing. Rather than play up the cartoon spazz aspect of Lewis' persona, Bacon instead captures Lewis the self-styled intellectual, the inveterate name-dropper and high-minded artiste. The neckerchief Bacon sports says it all. Neckerchiefs invariably send out a mixed message. The message they intend to give out is "I am a sophisticated, continental gentleman of refinement and taste." The message they actually send out, however, is "I am a pompous boob."
Miscasting plays a huge role in the film's ultimate failure, but the culprit is not Bacon but Alison Lohman, who was as wonderful in Matchstick Men as she is terrible here. In the earlier film, Lohman pulled off a tricky role that required her to be convincing as both a 14-year-old tomboy who mysteriously enters the life of OCD con man Nicolas Cage and as a twentysomething grifter conning the con. Alas, the winsome, doe-eyed girlishness that made Lohman so charming in Matchstick Men feels entirely wrong for the role of a hard-hitting, hard-partying reporter out to ferret out the dark secret at the core of Bacon and Firth's break-up.
Lohman's performance suggests nothing so much as a little girl flailing about in her mother's outsized clothing. Imagine Drew Barrymore playing a distaff Bob Woodward ("Could you, like, tell me about the Watergate and dirty tricks and stuff? It'd be really neato if you could, Deep Throat Dude") and you have a good indication of Lohman's almost surreal miscasting. It's never an encouraging sign when an actress' first lines (in this case "I was a young journalist. A few awards. A couple of cover stories and a desperate need to prove myself.") make you think "No you're not. Stop lying, you dirty liar." It's the kind of fatal miscasting that makes suspension of disbelief impossible.
Where The Truth Lies bounces back and forth in time between the duo's late '50s heyday, when their massively successful partnership came apart after a pretty young college student (Rachel Blanchard) was found dead in a bathtub in their hotel room in New Jersey, and fifteen years later, as Lohman doggedly investigates Blanchard's death while writing a book about the cash-starved Firth, who is willing to give up many, if not all, of his dark secrets for a million dollar payday.
Where The Truth Lies is concerned primarily with the rapaciousness of fame, the way it demands virgin sacrifices and is fed with Dionysian excess. Firth needs the oxygen of fame just to survive; without it, he's nothing more than a husk, a shell, a vacuum where a soul and a body should be. There's a wonderful line in "Stand Up" where Ludacris inquires "How you ain't gonna fuck? Bitch, I'm me!" that made me think of this film. For Firth and Bacon, the world is a pleasure palace and every attractive woman in the world is their inalienable birthright, the universe's reward for being rich and famous.
Firth and Bacon function as mirror images of each other, dark tormented men who indulge unapologetically in the spoils of fame yet wear their public personas like a crown of thorns. At separate points, Bacon and Firth each tell Lohman that keeping up a façade of affability is a special form of anguish. In its superior first half, at least, Where The Truth Lies affords audiences the transgressive thrill of being ushered into a world of money, fame, and seemingly unlimited power, where nothing is verboten. There's an exhilarating sequence early on where Bacon mugs his way through "Just A Gigolo" while Firth journeys offstage and smashes a heckler's face against the ground in a speed-fueled rage. Egoyan here takes a pop-culture institution (Martin & Lewis) bathed in a safe glow of dewy, rose-colored nostalgia and makes it seem raw and dangerous and edgy.
Which makes it all the more unforgivable that Where the Truth Lies devolves steadily into an inert, second-rate show-business mystery with (Spoiler alert) a dreary final twist rooted in gay panic and an ending straight out of the big book of mystery clichés. The butler did it! Yes, the dead girl was done in not by Bacon or the boozy, pill-popping, desperately unhappy Firth but rather by Bacon's sinister manservant (David Hayman), who lurks malevolently about the fringes until it's time for the big reveal.
In Exotica, Egoyan elevated lurid pulp to the level of high art. He's a whiz at imbuing sordid material with feverish, operatic intensity, but here seedy pulp stubbornly remains seedy pulp. Everything is pitched about thirty percent over the top, from the florid dialogue to the melodramatic plot twists to the sometimes wooden acting. Egoyan promises a thrilling exploration into the secret history of show-business, a dark romp into the nightmare subterranean side of fame yet ultimately delivers an empty erotic thriller fortified with arty pretension.
Oh well. I'm sure that David Cronenberg's forthcoming adaptation of "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" will fare better with critics and audiences alike. Oh, and incidentally I've been unable to respond to comments for the past few weeks, so I figured this would be a good forum to concede that ridiculing de-contextualized movie dialogue is 100% unfair yet I wholly intend to keep on doing it anyway. If nothing else, it provides a sense of the flavor and texture of a film's unique, one-of-a-kind, utterly individual crapitude.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco